Success Isn’t Just for the Young

Chris Latham
Contributor

Some of America’s greatest business leaders hit their stride later in life. Many people have come to believe that success is supposed to strike when they’re young.

While that may be the case for some pop stars and digital gurus, for most people, success comes as a result of gradually honing their craft through years of dedication and hard work. In fact, the most venerated figures in American business include people who gained massive success later in life.

This Is Capitalism has spotlighted Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus, who at the age of 50 opened the first stores of what would become the nation’s largest home improvement retailer. From its humble start in 1979, Home Depot grew into a publicly traded company with annual revenues exceeding $100 billion.

What motivates later-in-life winners like Bernie Marcus? How did they do it? What were their circumstances and mindset? The stories of four other champions of commerce shed light on the answers.

LEO GOODWIN SR.

The husband and wife team of Leo and Lillian Goodwin revolutionized the automobile insurance industry by founding the Government Employees Insurance Company in 1936 to sell directly to policyholders instead of premium-producing intermediaries. Leo Goodwin Sr. had worked as an accountant and insurer at other companies prior to starting GEICO at the age of 50.

In its first year, GEICO hired 12 employees and wrote 3,700 policies. Lillian Goodwin handled the marketing, accounting and underwriting, pushing the firm to eventually reach profitability after years of struggling to break even. During that time, Leo and Lillian Goodwin worked 12-hour days, taking hardly any income themselves, in devotion to their business.

GEICO expanded its investor base in 1948 and Warren Buffett took notice of its potential in 1951. Buffett’s company Berkshire Hathaway purchased even more ownership stakes in GEICO over the decades, and bought it completely in 1996 — 45 years after Buffett came into the picture. Throughout the decades, GEICO built up more than $27 billion in assets and a team of over 36,000 associates.

COLONEL SANDERS

Harland Sanders dropped out of school in the sixth grade and worked an assortment of jobs, from army mule-tender to locomotive fireman, before opening his Sanders Court and Cafe service station in 1930. That Corbin, Kentucky, eatery was originally owned by the Shell Oil Company and fed customers who stopped for gas. It was there Sanders perfected his “secret recipe” for fried chicken.

In 1952, when Sanders was 62 years old, he franchised his recipe for the first time to Pete Harman of Utah. As Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants popped up nationwide, “Colonel” Sanders turned into its most visible brand ambassador. He traveled from state to state delighting eaters at franchises, almost always wearing his white suit and black string tie. Sanders sold his stake in the rapidly expanding franchise in 1965, at age 75.

Now known as KFC and a subsidiary of the Fortune 500 company Yum!, the fast food chain has over 20,000 restaurants in more than 125 countries on every continent except Antarctica. To this day, KFC uses the Colonel’s image as its main branding. Actors display his likeness on commercials and the company website features a great deal of Colonel-inspired content — from discounts to cooking tips.

RAY KROC

By the time Ray Kroc began franchising the fast-food burger shops created by Dick and Mac McDonald, he had already tried his hand at ambulance driving, piano playing and selling milkshake mixers. That was 1955, Kroc was 52, and the first McDonald’s restaurant had been open for 15 years.

Originally McDonald’s focused on barbecue and carhop drive-ins. When Dick and Mac realized burgers were their most profitable items, they switched gears. The brothers attracted Kroc’s attention by using several of his Multimixer machines. They had been seeking a new franchising agent when Kroc came along, but were reluctant to risk taking their southwestern chain national. Kroc was persuasive, and soon made improvements to in-store operations, the franchising model and marketing.

Business boomed. Kroc bought out Dick and Mac McDonald in 1961. Today there are over 36,000 shops around the world, and McDonald’s is a central piece of Americana. As the company website quoted Ray Kroc himself as saying, “If I had a brick for every time I’ve repeated the phrase Quality, Service, Cleanliness and Value, I think I’d probably be able to bridge the Atlantic Ocean with them.”

HENRY FORD

In 1896, Henry Ford sold his first vehicle — the Ford Quadricycle — and met inventor Thomas Edison, who encouraged him to continue. Ford would have numerous setbacks over the next two decades. Two of his ventures, the Detroit Automobile Company and then the Henry Ford Company, each only lasted a couple years until he started the Ford Motor Company in 1903.

Between 1896 and 1908, Henry Ford toiled against industry rivals, cost overruns, quality control and engineering obstacles. Then came the pivotal breakthrough. Perhaps the most iconic vehicle in history is the Ford Model T, which Henry Ford put on the road in 1908. He was 45 years old in an era when the average male life expectancy wasn’t quite 50 years old.

That vehicle set the standard for automobiles for decades to come as Ford mastered the low-cost, mass-produced assembly-line system of manufacturing that served middle class Americans. The Ford Motor Company has evolved into a multinational organization with revenues of nearly $157 billion, 202,000 employees and 168 models on the market.

MASTERS OF REINVENTION

Each of these leaders reinvented themselves, and business models, in pursuit of their vision. Temporary failure was a necessary part of that process. So was making connections with the proper people, whether for funding, guidance or inspiration.

Their stories offer a powerful lesson on the nature of success: There is no single or surefire route to establishing a great company, but the longer you continue to strive for it the better the odds you will one day figure out how to make it thrive. It’s not about your age. It’s about results.